Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore could be called a retelling of the Oedipus myth, but not essentially so; Yes, there is an ominous father; Yes there is a troubled teenage boy, and, yes there is also that dreadfully threatening fear of the future. But there’s more. Much more.
The novel begins with a fifteen year old boy backpacking and embarking on an obscure journey to search for his mother. The first few words unfold in a conversation between the boy and his eerily personified superego - “Okay, picture a terrible sandstorm… there’s no sun there, no moon, no direction, no sense of time. Just fine white sand swirling up into the sky like pulverized bones. That’s the kind of sandstorm you need to imagine…You will really have to make it through that violent, metaphysical, symbolic storm. No matter how metaphysical or symbolic it might be, make no mistake about it: it will cut through flesh like a thousand razor blades,” – the boy named Crow – the boy’s exteriorized superego - says to the boy. By now you know for certain that this is no ordinary journey; there are all traces of an unreal, vicious storm awaiting the boy - The boy whose name is Kafka Tamura, or atleast, that’s what he says to the first someone he meets in his twisted expedition. You never know his real first name, just as you never discover the truth about countless other ploys that you would have been stamping your feet to resolve.
Typically, you’d detest a nasty novel such as this – when it throws so many questions, with no obvious answers in the end. When it gives you only infuriating loose ends to hang on to. But that’s not the story with this Murakami novel, yes, even if you are a stickler for tidy conclusions.
Case in point, the “Rice Bowl Hill Incident”. Second chapter, at another place and time. You’re bamboozled with the wartime scenario – a group of school children suddenly lose consciousness after a silver, duralumin air plane like object races past the sky. You’d suppose they were US bombers, but there is no clear evidence to second that. Then suddenly the children regain consciousness, as if they’d just woken up from a deep sleep, with absolutely no traces, emotional or physical, of their strange experience. All, except for the one boy named Satoru Nakata, who remains unconscious. When Nakata does wake from his induced sleep, he is “not very bright”, and can talk to cats.
Now, with such an enthralling order right from the second chapter, you’re already geared up to untangle the mystery, to arrive at the unknown. But watch out. This isn’t your regular mystery novel. It’s a far-out delusory, spectral experience that Japan’s most famous living author has created, for those who can grasp it - even the writer himself has suggested that the key to understanding this novel is to read it multiple times.
Murakami’s spiritual extravaganza is filled with objects, events, and people that persistently hypnotize, astound, bewilder, and disgust – there are ghosts who love unrequitedly, leeches that fall from the sky, criminals named after whiskey, and superegos that speak, convince, and condemn. It’s a brand-new world filled with metaphors, themes, dream logic and existentialism. You might find yourself saying, “What? He digs out souls of cats to make a flute?! Really?” But that’s what the Murakami magic is all about. You’ll find yourself amidst the knottiest of circumstances, most outrageous possibilities, and viciously unbelievable choices – but you gulp it all down, and vehemently ask for more.
The breathing space comes from the novel’s narration. Despite its convoluted story, the novel is typically narrated – there are two threads running in two different places, with each chapter alternating in perspectives. On one hand there is Nakata who is now an elderly simpleton, still very much absorbed in his conversation with cats - but with a bigger, higher purpose to his life. Nakata has set out on a quest to find an inscrutable entrance stone – now, don’t even begin to wonder what the stone's got to do with the story - the man himself, Nakata, doesn't have a clue! What he does know however, is that the stone ought to be found, and so he simply searches for it - as though it were the written, absolute, unquestionable purpose of his life.
In the other thread of the novel is Kafka, who never quite connecting with the world takes refuge in a small town library. Experiences that are unusual and exhausting never let go of him - they push, press, and drive him on to becoming "the toughest fifteen year old in the world." The lives of the two protagonists might seem poles apart, but go by Murakami's advice of reading the novel more than once, or use the scrutiny of a hard-boiled detective and you'll see the designed linkage - The two threads always stay connected, although they are never really joined. For instance, when Nakata finds the entrance stone, it is Kafka's life in a far away place taking a whole new (and freakish) dimension, or, when Nakata goes on a crazy sleep marathon, it is Kafka in a remote place struggling with sleepless nights.
There are other equally strange characters living equally unusual lives who come and go – Mrs. Saeki the owner of the library (who may have, or may not have been Kafka’s mother, who knows?), Oshima, the sensitive hemophiliac who acts as an advisor and confidant to Kafka; Hoshino the generous redneck who helps out dull, old Nakata in his wandering search and purpose.
At a deeper level, Murakami’s novel can be looked at as an endeavor in cracking the potent concepts of wholeness and completeness, those that were voiced way back, in Plato's Symposium. After the wartime incident, Nakata is said to have lost “half his shadow.” The rest of his life is a series of events and circumstances that bring him to closer to his lost or injured half – Kafka. Through out the novel the actions of these two protagonists are somehow interlinked, even though they never once meet. The events in both their lives work to serve a common nameless purpose; Each compensates for the other, and their destinies seem fully entwined. For instance, there's Kafka who inexplicably wakes up in the morning after his father's murder to find his shirt covered in blood, and there's Nakata in a faraway place and time who admits to committing a crime – they both seem to function, without their knowledge, as two halves of a greater whole.
The Oedipus myth that is often interlinked with the novel is an element that wasn’t planned by Murakami – but it does ensue, in a sense, is all that I’d say without getting into more details of the plot. Enough said to assure you that this is reading at it fanciful best - where the difference between dreams and reality blur till you can’t tell apart the two; where you descend into the deepest part of your psyche.
To me, it is in calling the novel a ‘mystery’ that is the fatal blunder – enough to wreck the sheer beauty of imagination in the book. A mystery novel offers you answers and solutions; what Murakami gives is a novel of true inventiveness and imagination. Murakami’s protagonists aren’t detectives – the crime, as he puts in his own words “has somehow happened within themselves.” They’re involved with things that they don’t know about, and find their answers by going with the flow of their feelings and intuitions - those that lead them inevitably, to bizarre, outlandish places.
The eccentric novel, as many would presume and Murakami confirms, is homage to Franz Kafka. His protagonist Kafka Tamura is a disillusioned, fantastical, alienated mirror image of the great writer. Interestingly, the Japanese writer was returned with an honor to match – he won the Franz Kafka Prize from the Czech Republic, following British playwright Harold Pinter in 2006. Before I conclude let’s take the grand, much talked about question: Murakami for Nobel Prize? I say killer-good!